Opinion

Rebuilding Demolished Penn Station Isn’t New York’s Redemption

The interior of Pennsylvania Station, demolished in TK (1935-38) (photograph by Berenice Abbott, via NYPL)
The interior of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, demolished in 1963 (1935-38) (photo by Berenice Abbott, via NYPL)

When the soaring ceilings and Doric columns of the McKim, Mead & White-designed Pennsylvania Station started to fall under the wrecking ball in 1963, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.” Today in the crowded, maze-like tunnels of the new Penn Station its ghost lingers, summoned with framed photographs of the light-streamed old steel skylight windows and a pair of salvaged concrete eagles positioned outside. Even if you never traveled through those lost spaces, there’s a pang of nostalgic loss, which is why a new proposal to rebuild the structure is so appealing.

An original Penn Station eagle outside the new Penn Station (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
An original Penn Station eagle outside the new Penn Station (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

As first reported by Clem Labine at Traditional Building and picked up by Rowley Amato at Curbed, “The Plan to Rebuild Penn Station” is the idea of Richard W. Camero, a principal of the Brooklyn-based architecture and design studio Atelier & Co. The proposal breaks down along three points, with the first being the reconstruction of the original spaces using the preserved architectural drawings at the New-York Historical Society, the second being to update it as a modern transit facility connecting the subway, New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road, and Amtrak, and third the redevelopment of the area around it.

For all of this, Camero estimates the cost at around $2.5 billion, which seems like the most farfetched part, as the recently completed Fulton Center focused just on subway infrastructure was $1.4 billion and the World Trade Center transportation hub set to open this month has soared to $3.9 billion. Labine argued in his piece that unlike “today’s new sculpture-buildings, there would be no complex engineering issues to be resolved because the building is based on time-tested principles” and there are additional savings in that “the original excavations and foundations are already in place.”

Let’s set aside some immediate questions about how to find the same artisans as were available when construction started in 1904, the feasibility of getting multiple transportation companies and the city to agree on such a project, and the likelihood of producing an architectural facsimile in this age and at that budget that doesn’t feel like New York-New York Las Vegas. Rebuilding the demolished Penn Station exactly as it was is a pipe dream. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the current design of Penn Station is claustrophobic, chaotic, and in need of a revamp.

Passengers in the waiting room at Pennsylvania Station (1911) (via Library of Congress)
Passengers in the waiting room at Pennsylvania Station (1911) (via Library of Congress)

That the demolition of Penn Station was a blight on the city’s architectural heritage is without dispute. As a silver lining, it did spur the Landmarks Law in New York to be signed in 1965, and encouraged architectural preservation across the country. Its absence is a powerful symbol of preservation failure and why those laws are essential. Beyond the lost glamor and tantalizing chance of resurrection, its memory can encourage design thinking about the future. For example, the Municipal Arts Society in 2013 had four architecture firms imagine new Penn Station and Madison Square Garden complexes, with even the most futuristic concentrating on adding more space and light, perhaps what we crave most from the old Beaux Arts building.

There’s currently a different, and less conceptual, grassroots proposal to reconstruct some of the original arches in Central Park to address current traffic flow issues. The Central Park Arch Project, along with Rebuild Penn Station, may be suggesting very different ideas in terms of budgets and resources, but there is a value to examining what we’ve demolished to consider the impact of what’s missing, and how reimagining it could address current issues. Madison Square Garden constructed on top of Penn Station has its lease running out in 2023, and may offer an opportunity to revisit the past even if it’s not possible to totally reverse it.

Waiting for trains at Pennsylvania Station (1942) (photo by Marjory Collins, via Library of Congress)
Waiting for trains at Pennsylvania Station (1942) (photo by Marjory Collins, via Library of Congress)
Façade of Pennsylvania Station (1962) (via Library of Congress)
Façade of Pennsylvania Station (1962) (via Library of Congress)

Read more about the proposal to rebuild the original Pennsylvania Station at Traditional Building.  

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